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Small tasks that grow teams


How can you - and those you work with - gain more flexibility and adaptability in what you do and in how you relate to one another? And how can you do this while minimising the stress that often accompanies change?

One of Caitlin Walker's Systemic Modelling tools, Developmental Tasks, provides an answer. The aim of this tool is to support individuals and teams to learn new skills and ways of being they may not be used to.

In psychology, Developmental Tasks are “basic tasks which must be mastered at each stage of life if the individual is to achieve normal development and healthy adjustment”. In Systemic Modelling, however, it’s not about mastery as a pre-condition for development. Instead, it’s about creating small amounts of manageable stress to stimulate learning for personal and professional development, whether or not it results in mastery.

Designing a good developmental task

Developmental Tasks can prove useful in teams when individuals need to adapt to different ways of working for better productivity, or when different working styles might be causing strife. Done well, setting  Developmental Tasks in a team can also result in better teamwork and deeper bonds.

Here are some characteristics of a good Developmental Task:

1. Keep it small

Within Systemic Modelling, a Developmental Task involves finding one small thing you can do towards a particular desired outcome. For example, if you would like to speak up in public more often or stop a habit of interrupting others or be more organised, you can use this desire as the jumping-off point for a Developmental Task.

The task itself needs to be a stretch from what is familiar - but not too much of a stretch. Keeping it small is one way to ensure that unfamiliarity doesn’t trigger so much stress that adapting and learning become too difficult. The idea behind a Developmental Task is to stimulate a system to learn. Designing a task that's too big could be counterproductive for someone wanting to try out a new behaviour.

An example of keeping it small could be saying one thing in each meeting, pausing before speaking once in each meeting, or clearing your desk (or just a part of your desk every Friday afternoon.

2. Make it measurable

One way to keep a Developmental Task small is to limit how much someone needs to do it before stopping and reviewing whether the task is working for them. For example, if I would like to improve my networking skills but am nervous of attending networking sessions, I could set myself a Developmental Task of networking once a week for three weeks. Or speaking in meetings could be reviewed after five meetings.

This means Developmental Tasks don't continue indefinitely. We can stop and review what we've learned and decide what we'd like to do next to keep moving towards our desired outcome.

3. Make it observable

In a team, a good Developmental Task is observable; it’s something others can see or hear. This rules out internal processes that others can't easily observe (e.g. I will spend 10 minutes at the end of each day reflecting on how organised I've been) or which aren’t signified in some observable way.

What’s important about making it observable? It means others in the team can watch / listen for the new behaviour and provide some in-the-moment feedback. If others in the meeting know you have a Developmental Task to speak up at least once, they can give you a little thumbs up or a smile of encouragement when you do this.

To ensure tasks are observable, ask one another: What will we see or hear? And if what someone wants o practise is not observable in itself - as in the 'reflecting' example - this question can help them think of ways to make it observable, e.g. "You'll see me put a notice on my chair saying 'reflection in progress' and then you'll see me sitting still for 10 minutes before removing the notice,"

Making tasks observable also helps with accountability. When we're committing to new habits, most of us are more likely to succeed if we are accountable to others; if we know someone is watching out for us to do a task, then we're more likely to do it.

4. Make it playful

Doing something outside our comfort zone will likely result in moments when we don’t get it right. So making Developmenat Tasks playful can take the edge off any anxiety about not meeting our own expectations or thos of other people.

A smile or a thumbs up is a great way to reward or affirm someone who has just done their Developmental Task. Or you can make it even more playful with a Mexican wave or having everyone say, "You did it!" For online meetings, you can use emojis or gestures or even a cheer to support a teammate who is working on their task. The idea is, the more fun we have doing something difficult, the easier and more forgiving, even enjoyable, the experience is.

What if someone forgets their task or doesn't get it quite right? They might like to be reminded with a raised eyebrow or a little nod.

Whatever reward or reminder you use, it needs to be something the person has chosen or agreed to. For example, "When I speak up in the meeting, I'd like a little thumbs up and if I still haven't spoken 10 minutes before the end, I'd like you to type Are you speaking today? in the chat." This prevents miscommunication or embarrassment. It's also a good idea for everyone or several members of the team to demonstrate the agreed reward or reminder - so you get five smiles or five reminders. Then the activity becoming a part of what teamwork means - and it makes it easier to do something whacky publicly if everyone else is also doing it!

What happens next?

Developmental Tasks are not meant to be indefinite. It would just be too stressful to be constantly reaching outside our comfort zone.

Having a cut-off time for a task allows individuals to pause and review what they've learned about themselves and what they are capable of. Doing this allows them to consider how much their system has updated itself and what difference this makes.

On a personal level, this can lead to more self-awareness, growth and development. At a group level, it can make teams more adaptable, and more primed for learning and updating behaviours when that’s needed.

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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